It's been a good year for the Notwist. The German quartet, arguably one of the most creative groups in music today, enjoyed a bit of a breakthrough in North America in 2003, thanks to the much-lauded (and deservedly so) album Neon Golden. A sumptuous blend of laptop beats, modern rock, and some of the best pop hooks we've heard in years, it's no surprise that the word of mouth among music fans on the Net spread so rapidly. The album's sales were respectable, especially considering the Notwist had always been relative unknowns over here, and the band toured extensively -- and continues to in 2004. Thanks to an early European release (2002) and a subsequent North American release (2003), Neon Golden was one of those rare albums that figured prominently on critics' year-end lists two years in a row.
In an attempt to prolong the positive momentum, and to throw the fans a bit of a bone to whet their appetites until a new album is recorded, the Notwist have put out the five-song, 30-minute EP Different Cars and Trains. The mere thought of any kind of new material from the band is enough to excite anyone who enjoys their music; after all, the Notwist have been on an incredible run over the last eight years or so, metamorphosing from a humble little post-punk outfit to true innovators, their seamless melding of rock and IDM beats actually beating the likes of Radiohead to the punch. The question on the minds of every fan of the band has to be, "What direction are they going to take their music in next?" Well, if you want a definite answer with this new EP, you're not going to get it.
Comprised primarily of B-sides from 2002 singles, the lazily-assembled Different Cars and Trains, while not at all unpleasant, is a disappointment, especially considering that these tracks have been making the rounds among fileswappers online for some time now. Although the music has not been released Stateside, there's nothing at all new here, as everything, even the cover artwork (lifted from the German single Pick up the Phone), came out originally in early 2002.
Programmer Martin Gretschmann has been a key component behind the Notwist's rise in recent years, and also has released several CDs under his solo moniker Console. Oddly enough, the Console remixes of the Neon Golden tracks "Pilot" and "Neon Golden" completely lack any of the originality and inventiveness that Gretschmann has exhibited on previous albums. Basically, both tracks have been only minimally reconstructed, the primary change being a woefully pedestrian thumping, house-style beat/bassline combination. The dance-oriented beats offer only a slight change to the already uptempo "Pilot", but the difference on "Neon Golden" is a bit more interesting, the light funk of the straightforward beats contrasting with the acoustic guitar and banjo of the original track.
There's more fun to be had later on, though. The remix of "This Room" by folktronica stalwarts Four Tet and Manitoba, is a fascinating eight-minute track, as you hear both artists add their own distinctive styles to the song. You can detect Four Tet's Kieran Hebden adding his trademark, stuttering, cut-and-paste snippets, while Manitoba whiz Dan Snaith is obviously the man behind the lively drum track and the song's more euphoric, psychedelic element. Equally fascinating is the Loopspool remix "Different Cars and Trains". Programmer Andreas Gerth takes the 30-second dub-infused break in the original version of "Pilot", and assembles an entire song out of it, accentuating the dark, nocturnal element of dub, looping that great bassline from the original track, adding his own unique touches. What Gerth, Hebden, and Snaith achieve on these two tracks is exactly what makes remixes exciting when they're done well.
The lone new (and I use that term loosely) composition on Different Cars and Trains is the brief track "Red Room", originally off the Pick up the Phone single, composed by Gretschmann and singer/guitarist Micha Acher. Incorporating the sounds of various wind instruments with Gretschmann's electronic blips, it's not much of a step forward, as it revisits the laid-back, jazz-influenced stylings of the band's 1998 album Shrink, with slightly more emphasis placed on the electronic side. The song, again, isn't bad at all, but compared to the material on the albums, it just doesn't hold up as well. If the Notwist had filled out Different Cars and Trains with more remixes and B-sides, instead of teasing fans with a paltry half hour's worth of music, then it might have warranted more than merely a lukewarm recommendation. So unless you're a diehard completist, you'd be better off just downloading the tracks online and holding out for the next album.